La Limonada

La Limonada

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Loans Distributed...Bags Packed...Nostalgia has kicked in!

Looking back six weeks from now, I boarded a plane from Mumbai, that brought me to Guatemala. At that moment all I could think of was my family, my home I was leaving behind. I was thinking about the world I grew up in, my dream world. Guatemala is where I faced reality. Now that I am leaving Guatemala, for another school year at UNC, and all I can think about is the transition I am making between these two distinct realms. From the poverty and struggle, the people of La Limonada face everyday, to the comfort and luxury of the University.

Undoubtedly, I have received much more from the community than what I had to offer. I will agree with Sarika, that out of all the experiences I had in Guatemala I am going to miss the people the most:

Our host parents, Teresita and Gustavo, who cared for us as if we were their own children.
Tita, the lady spearheading Lemonade International, who involuntarily taught me that love and compassion goes beyond all materialistic pleasures, it lies within the simplicity of one's heart. Also, Tita's team, who welcomed us to their home and made our visits to La Limonada as enjoyable as they were.
Our loan officer, Nestor, and the admin, Damaris, whose dedication and expertise  helped us establish FAC successfully.
The teachers at the schools who escorted us through La Limonada whenever we needed too, always with a smiling face I must add.
The children at the schools, who kissed and hugged us whenever we met them, as if we were their own.
Sofia and her family, who were kind enough to take us to Lake Atitlan and ensured that we had a good time in Guatemala.
Lastly, our five women borrower's, who cooperated with us throughout the program, attended all the workshops, answered all our questions and bade us goodbye with their prayers.

Today we conducted the fifth workshop where we gave out micro-loans each worth Q500 or $60 . It was a proud moment. This marked the beginning of the long-term relationship we are going to have with our borrowers. Along with micro-loans we implemented a savings circle amidst ex gang members,"The Muchachos", living in La Limonada and working at the carpentry workshop. They all seemed really excited to save with FAC so that in the future they would have enough capital to invest in their own businesses. They had amazing entrepreneurial ideas.

My takeaways from Guatemala include inspiration for leading a more meaningful life, insight into the lives of those living in poverty, memories which made my Guatemala experience what it is, lastly, love and friendship I received from the people here, I will cherish these relations forever.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my teammates Santi and Sarika who worked really hard towards FAC. The Guatemala experience would be incomplete without them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

So Far......So Good!

It has been almost a month in Guatemala and I must conclude of my experiences that this has been one of the most educational and inspiring trips I have had so far. A bit of background information: originally I wasn't on the Guatemala trip. I had signed up for the Carolina Microfinance Initiative (CMI) International Programs trip to Zimbabwe. In India I never got the opportunity to be a part of a group travelling abroad to help people out of poverty. In fact, I was introduced to the term micro-finance at a Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) interest meeting at UNC. They showed me a documentary portraying the evolving role of micro-finance in the globalized and connected world of today. In this documentary the founder of the Grameen Bank, Prof Muhammad Yunus, spoke about the plight of a woman in Bangladesh  making baskets everyday only to have most of her profits being taken away by a middleman. This inspired him to give the woman a small loan to buy her capital and get rid of the interference of the middleman. I still did not believe in the concept. Like a banker, I thought that giving poor people loans would never work as they had no security, they couldn't be trusted and would never repay. But that was exactly the point of  micro-finance.From this point onwards I kept researching and learning more about it. The beauty of micro-finance is that its not donating money. Donation never cures the problem, the people we provide loans are expected to pay back in full.

CMI's workshops were most helpful in learning the intricacies of starting a micro-finance initiative (MFI). I joined CMI's Kiva team to organize fundraising dinners in which the proceeds would go as micro-loans to entrepreneurs around the world through the online donating website I was satisfied knowing that I was making a difference. During this time I was told about the CMI trip to Zimbabwe, I hopped on board. I met Jonathan, a gentleman living in Chapel Hill but is originally from Zimbabwe. He is a wire artist and every year takes a group of students back to his homeland to help uplift the local community. We visited his house, had a wonderful Zimbabwean meal and finalized the dates of our trip. Unfortunately, elections in Zimbabwe forced us to cancel our trip. I lost hope of establishing an MFI this summer;however, Santi called me as soon as he knew and asked me if I would be willing to accompany him and Sarika establish an MFI to Guatemala. I couldn't miss this opportunity. The rest is history.

It is wonderful how everything worked out and now we are in our fourth week at Guatemala, completed three workshop sessions, filled in the loan applications and the survey forms, and now we are almost ready to disburse the loans to five entrepreneurial women from La Limonada. As I said before, initially I thought the poor were not a very good credit risk. Once I went to the homes of all the borrowers and saw their determination to work and improve their lives I realized that they are not poor by choice. If they are lazy to work it is either due to lack of capital or because of the way they have been brought up over the years. That is why Tita and her team have established two schools in La Limonada in order to educate the youth and cure the problems of violence and poverty from where it begins. People living in poverty want to improve their lives and are constantly searching for opportunities to do so. Banks do not  provide them with capital, if they do they charge exorbitant interest rates and take their houses as security.

The need of micro-finance is ubiquitous. Try and make a difference. Even if you are able to influence one life it is worth it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Home Visits and Football with the 'Muchachos'


We had all the workshops translated and the list of borrowers ready. Now was the time to visit the homes of each potential borrower and invite them personally to the workshops. The school at La Limonada and the homes are two different worlds altogether. When you enter the school you can see colorful classrooms and adorable young children(3-5 years of age) having fun in activities organized for them. First, they have a bath and brush their teeth. Then they are given their meal. After the meal they are told stories from the bible, they color on drawings portraying biblical characters and they play fun games. The older children have other activities such as psychological exercises,  stories from the bible and fun games of course. Tita is trying her best to discipline the children coming to her school. She makes sure that when the children wake up every morning they are excited to come to her school.

On the other hand, the houses in La Limonada are very small and each had a distinctive odor to it. Surprisingly all the homes had televisions and sufficient lighting. Every home had a bed and consisted of several articles such as mugs, soft toys, old worn-out speakers and a wooden  cupboard. Every house had posters on its walls. Some were of music bands and some were of disney cartoons.  The people we met were very kind and of course loved Tita very much. When the lady of the house sees Tita knocking her door, she smiles as if she has all the happiness in the world.I guess it is hope for a better life that Tita brings to everyone. The women we met were involved in several money-making activities. One lady made food everyday and sold it on the streets and the other made beautiful jewelry from locally obtained stones. There is potential for them to expand their trade, so far the scope of micro-finance seems promising.

After visiting homes we all went to Tita's house. I have never been to a house as lively as hers. Santi's words describe her life in the best way, ' Beauty in Simplicity '. I wouldn't say that her house was well kept but most people from Lemonade International, the NGO working in La Limonada, stay there. They all work in La Limonada during the day and cool off at Tita's place. The two kids, Nathan and Grace, make the house enjoyable and energized. Spending a couple of hours in that house was one of the most refreshing experiences I have had in Guatemala so far.


After visiting homes and the school (outside La Limonada) where we will be holding the workshops, we felt pretty confident about our goal. So we thought we would just go to the school in La Limonada  today and help everyone there. In fact Sofia, our friend from UNC living here in Guatemala, came with us today. It was an eventful morning. Santi and Sofia were translating biblical stories and other activities organized by people from Arkansas. Sarika was helping Sofia and I was with the young children tickling them, coloring with them and participating in all the fun activities that were organized for them. The biggest challenge I face is my inability to speak and understand Spanish. Many a time a child asks me something in Spanish and I am unable to answer him. But with whatever Spanish I speak we all seem to have a lot of fun.

Every Wednesday the Muchachos go to the park to play football. Usually its them against those who have come to help uplift La Limonada. Since I like to play football I volunteered to play against them. At first I was a little afraid thinking what if they play too rough or what if I get into a fight with one of them. But I was surprised to see that when it came to football they were very sporting and fair. They made sure while they enjoy the game others did too. This was the first time I got to interact with them on a personal level. It was all with smiles and handshakes. I am looking forward to play again next Wednesday. They were really good at the game!

I back home for now thanking God for giving me this opportunity to come to Guatemala, meeting such amazing people, and having such a great expreience. The best part is that there are still 5 weeks to go and so many new things to experience. Guess all those meetings, planning, grant-writing back at UNC has paid-off of for all of us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Visit to La Limonada

The first day in La Limonada! The slum was just how I imagined it to be, vast area covered by small houses; some made of brick and some of metal sheets. The landscape is similar to that of a trench; the houses are located at the inner border of the trench. A small creek flows from the top to the bottom of the ravine and acts as a natural garbage disposal for all those living there. I have been in ‘dharavi’, the slum portrayed in the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ The two slums might look similar from the outside but are actually very different from within. The stigma attached to the community of La Limonada prevents its people from obtaining any job outside therefore most of the people are left with nothing to do. Left with no work they get involved in gangs. In fact, La Limonada is divided into number of sectors each ruled by a certain gang. As if everyone knows, people living in one sector will dare not enter another one and vice versa. ‘Dharavi’ has no such stigma attached to it and its people enjoy much more benefits than those of La Limonada. ‘Dharavi’ is an industry, with warehouses, machines, hardware shops etc within itself.

You might be thinking that La Limonada is a very dangerous place to be and you dare not be there. Well that is what I thought before going there. Today I met Tita, the lady who is spearheading the NGO Lemonade International and has already established two schools in different sectors of La Limonada. Honestly, I haven’t met such a selfless person before. She goes to La Limonada every day and works hard to let all the people living there know that even though the Government has disowned them, there is hope. A kind lady at heart always smiling and enjoying herself in whatever she does. Similarly I met Inna, a girl from Ukraine who has been here for the past 4 months helping Tita. It amazes me how selflessly people dedicate themselves towards helping others. Giving donations is easy but the real task lies in going in yourself and helping out personally.

The gangs in La Limonada are very much active. However, amidst all these tensions “the Muchachos”, a gang of young boys, work in a carpentry workshop in one of the schools. At first I was a little afraid meeting them, but once I got to know them I realized that they do not want to be a gang. Like everyone else they too want comfortable lives. I helped them carry two wooden bookshelves they had made at the workshop and were able to sell. They seem to care for one another and Tita’s team. They appreciate that people are helping them to lead better lives.

The most important undertaking of the school is the education of young children. Once the children are well-educated as the years go by the gangs will not have any substitutes to fill in and La Limonada will be a safer place to live. Today I learnt numbers in Spanish, flipping through my phrase book of course, and teaching the children at the school. In the end I was rewarded with a warm hug by them, it was priceless.

Walking through the small lanes of La Limonada gave me more perspective into how the people lived there. They had nowhere else to go. The streets comprise many small shops selling food articles, cigarettes, fruits etc. It is as if the ghetto is sustaining itself; no assistance from the outside. Few houses did have motorbikes, I was very happy to see the local Indian bike ‘Bajaj Pulsar’ running across the street of La Limonada.

One day in La Limonada and I am overwhelmed as well as satisfied. Meeting new people, interacting with former gang members, painting balloons on the school walls, teaching children numbers in Spanish, walking through the streets of the ghetto and observing the local people’s day-to-day lives. I am at home now but the picture of La Limonada and all those working for its upliftment doesn’t seem to escape my mind.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Beyond Expectations

Being from India, I have seen extreme levels of poverty. When I got the opportunity to pilot an MFI in La Limonada, the first thought that ran across my mind was why not work towards poverty alleviation in India. Then, Santi told me that La limonada has the 4th highest murder rate in the world and this felt like a challenge. The people of La Limonada are in need of help and we 3 UNC students are going to provide as much assistance we can to help them out of their poor conditions.

I had done research only on La Limonada and had a blurred picture of what Guatemala City would be like. On arriving here I observed that most of the city is well organized and developed. Then why is La Limonada is such poor conditions? Haven't the local people of Guatemala City made efforts to help the people living in the slum?I asked several people and found out the there is a stigma attached to the community of La Limonada. People living outside of La Limonada do not interact with those who live in it. In fact, if a person from La Limonada applies for a job outside he is often rejected instantaneously. If this situation persists, then even if the people are willing to work hard to fight their poor conditions they are denied opportunities by others. Therefore, the task is not only of providing financial and educational help but also of changing the outlook towards the people living in La Limonada.

After talking so much about La Limonada, it feels weird to say that I still have kept myself from visiting that place. We have to lay the ground work first. I will be going there on Tuesday, can't wait to talk about my first visit there. Yesterday we met with the local loan officer, Nestor, and discussed our primary concerns and tasks in conducting educational workshops and implementing the MFI successfully.

The place I am staying in has a colonial edge to it. Gustavo and Teresa have been very kind and treated us as if we are their own children. I am very thankful to them. The weather was great yesterday. Reminded me of the monsoons in India. Cloudy skies, cold chills and moist atmosphere. We hope to know more about the city and its people through our observations and interactions.